I can still remember the night before my first day of fifth grade. I stared up at my bedroom ceiling the whole night, terrified of what the new school year would bring. This, despite that I had attended the school for the five previous years, knew all my classmates and had a smashing Sears purple corduroy cowgirl-inspired outfit prepared.
Kids everywhere get nervous before the first day of school, even when there’s no obvious challenge such as a new school (or they are oblivious to impending fashion disasters). A new school year is always a big transition.
Kate Kelly is a D.C. clinical social worker who specializes in treating childhood anxiety and runs courses that help girls learn coping skills for anxiety and stress. I called her for guidance on how to ease children into the school year. Below, Kelly shares her advice, as well as tips on how to recognize when anxiety is more than a minor concern:
1. Are you anxious, too?
It’s normal for all of us to feel a bit anxious, even wistful, as the more relaxed days of summer begin to give way to the busier days of fall. But since anxious kids will pick up if we’re feeling anxious or worried, take a moment to tune in to whatever you may be feeling: Pause, take a few soft belly breaths. Remember, anxiety is all about worrying about the future. If you’re feeling anxious, take the time to do whatever helps you reduce your stress and awaken your joy: yoga, meditation, swimming, running or spending time with a good friend.
Reducing your stress is great modeling for your anxious child and also increases the chances that less of your anxiety will be in the mix when you try to help your child with his or her anxious feelings.
2. Invite your child to talk.
Invite conversation with your child about what he or she might be feeling about the new schedule, new school and new expectations. The best time is when you’re both relaxed, perhaps after playing a board game, or after taking a bike ride together. Depending on the age of the child, ”side-by-side” conversations while riding in the car or browsing store aisles for school supplies can also be great times to chat.
To take the pulse on anxious feelings, keep the tone relaxed and inviting , perhaps by starting in an open-ended way: “I know our schedule is about to change, since we’ll be starting school in a few weeks. I’m curious what you’re thinking about that.”
If you find this elicits no response, you can try a more direct approach: “What two things are you most excited about at your new school? What two things maybe give you a few butterflies in your stomach?”
3. It’s normal to feel nervous (to a point).
If your child expresses anxious feelings, validate the feelings while at the same time expressing confidence in his or her capacities to meet new challenges. Sometimes we parents skip over the validating-the-feelings part of the equation and head straight into reassuring our kids because we so hate to see them anxious. But reassurance can feel hollow and not helpful to an anxious kid if we don’t first give the worried and scared feelings their due.
Tell your child that it’s normal to feel a bit anxious when we begin something new, perhaps sharing a time when you felt anxious, and what you did to help yourself. (Kids love to hear stories about challenges their parents have faced.). After you’ve validated your child’s feelings, convey your confidence in his or her capacities to meet the new situation. Talk about some of the cool stuff, such as the great playground, new friends, huge library — whatever makes the new school or schedule appealing.
4. Make a plan.
Anxious kids like to have a plan and a structure. Find out whatever you can about your child’s new schedule and share that with him or her. If your child is worried about the first day of school, see if the two of you can visit the school ahead of time so he or she has some familiarity with the setting and building. Try to find a trusted adult at the school who can be an anchor in those first few weeks for your anxious child.
If you get a class list before school starts, arrange a play date with a child in the class before school starts; first-day jitters are less jittery if there’s a familiar face in class.
Anxious middle-schoolers using a locker for the first time will be less nervous if you teach them how to use a combination lock before the first day of school.
5. Eat right; sleep well.
Anxious kids can feel soothed by routine. Prepare kids for a new routine by organizing your house in a back-to-school way, perhaps chatting with your child about setting up a special homework area. To help the transition back to a school schedule, start the back-to-school routine a week or two before school starts, if you can. And while you’re at it, make sure your back-to-school routine includes plenty of sleep and healthy foods which can sometimes be in short supply in the summer. Remember that what we eat and how we sleep affect our mood — and our anxiety levels — so choosing healthy food and getting enough sleep are really important.
6. Finally, if anxiety persists . . .
Most back-to-school and new-school anxiety will shift as kids settle into a routine in the first weeks of school. But if symptoms persist for several weeks, seek help from a counselor who has experience working with anxiety. Symptoms may be reported to parents as physical complaints — headaches, tummy aches, sore throat in younger kids, and nausea, headaches, muscle aches in older kids — that seem to disappear rapidly once the child stays home from school. You should also watch for difficulty sleeping, increased irritability and agitation, clinginess, temper tantrums or refusing to go to school.
Here’s the very good news: Anxiety is very treatable, so no child or parent should ever suffer unnecessarily.